The Native American Sweatlodge – A Spiritual Tradition

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Waking Times

The Sweat Lodge Ceremony, now central to most Native American cultures and spiritual life, is an adaptation of the sweat bath common to many ethnic cultures found in North and South America, Asia, Eastern and Western Europe, and Africa. It was prompted by the influence of European culture with its corrupting effect on native culture. With the introduction of alcohol and the inhumane treatment of native people, the need to re-purify themselves and find their way back to traditional ways of living became evident, as they were becoming increasingly poisoned by European culture. The Sweat Lodge Ceremony was the answer.

With the help of Medicine Men and Women, they could repair the damage done to their spirits, their minds and their bodies. The Sweat Lodge is a place of spiritual refuge and mental and physical healing, a place to get answers and guidance by asking spiritual entities, totem helpers, the Creator and Mother Earth for the needed wisdom and power.

A traditional Sweat Lodge is a wickiup made up of slender withes of aspen or willow, or other supple saplings, lashed together with raw hide, or grass or root cordage, although in some areas the lodge was constructed of whatever materials were at hand, from a mud roofed pit house to a cedar bark and plank lodge. The ends of the withes are set into the ground in a circle, approximately 10 feet in diameter, although there is no set size for a Sweat Lodge. That is determined by the location, materials available and the builder. The withes are bent over and lashed to form a low domed framework approximately 4 – 5 feet high at the center. The pit in the center is about 2 feet in diameter and a foot deep. The floor of the lodge may be clean swept dirt, or natural grassy turf, or may be covered with a mat of sweetgrass, soft cedar boughs, or sage leaves for comfort and cleanliness, kept away from the central pit.

  • The lodge in former times was covered with the hides of buffalo, bear or moose. In this day, the animal skins have been replaced with blankets, plastic sheeting, old carpet, heavy gauge canvas sheets and tarps to retain the heat and the steam.

    In many traditions the entrance to the sweat lodge faces to the East and the sacred fire pit. This has very significant spiritual value. Each new day for all begins in the East with the rising of Father Sun, the source of life and power, dawn of wisdom, while the fire heating the rocks is the undying light of the world, eternity, and it is a new spiritual beginning day that we seek in the sweat ceremony.

    Between the entrance to the lodge and the sacred fire pit, where the stones are heated, is an altar barrier, beyond which none may pass except the lodge or fire keepers, to prevent participants from accidently falling into the fire as they emerge from sweat. Traditionally this barrier altar is a buffalo or other skull atop a post, placed about 3 paces from the entrance and 3 paces from the fire, to warn of the danger. At the base of the post is a small raised earthen altar upon which are placed items sacred to the group or clan, sage, sweetgrass, feathers, etc., bordered with the four colors, and a pipe rack for the chanunpa.

    Common to all traditions, and the sweat, is the ideal of spiritual cleanliness. Many sweats start with the participants fasting for an entire day of contemplation in preparation for the sweat while avoiding caffeine, alcohol and other unhealthy substances. Prior to entering the sweat the participants usually smudge with sage, sweetgrass or cedar smoke as a means toward ritual cleanliness.

    Bringing personal sacred items is allowed but some rules apply. Items such as Eagle feathers, whistles and medicine pouches are allowed and welcomed. You should not bring anything that is not natural into the Sweat Lodge, such as: watches, ear rings, gold, silver, eye glasses, false teeth, etc. In many cultures a female on her moon is not allowed into the sweat, but in some they are.

    A Sweat Ceremony in many traditions usually starts with the loading and offering of the sacred chanunpa ~ “peace pipe” ~ in prayer, that the participants may know and speak the truth in their supplications of Grandfather, Earth Mother and the spirits. In other traditions, when you are called upon to go into the sweat lodge you will have some tobacco to offer to the sacred fire, saying a prayer or asking a question, the smoke from the tobacco carrying your request to the Great Spirit. As you prepare to enter the lodge the sweat leader smudges you with the smoke of burning sage, cedar, or sweetgrass, wafting the smoke over you with an eagle feather. You then crawl into the lodge in a sun-wise (clockwise) direction, bowing in humility to Great Spirit and in close contact with Earth Mother, and take your place in the circle, sitting crosslegged upright against the wall of the lodge.

    When all are inside the sweat leader calls upon the doorkeeper to drop the flap covering the lodge opening. The lodge becomes dark, and at this point the lodge leader announces that all are free to leave the lodge at any time if they cannot endure. (If you must leave, speak out “Mitakuye Oyasin,” “All my relatives.” The other participants will move away from the wall so that you may pass behind them as you leave in a clockwise direction.) He then asks for a short, contemplative silence. After the brief silence the flap is raised, and the leader calls upon the fire tender to bring in the heated stones from the sacred fire.

    The Stone People spirits are awakened in the stones by heating them in the sacred fire until red-hot. They are swept clean with a pine or cedar bough to remove smoking embers which would cause irritating discomfort in the lodge. One at a time they are placed in the shallow pit inside the sweat lodge, placing first the stone on the west, then north, east, south, and in the center to Grandfather. Additional stones are then placed to Grandmother and The People. After four to seven stones are in the pit, depending on tradition (and probably the size of the stones), the entrance is closed and sealed by the Sweat Lodge Keeper, who generally is also the fire tender.

    Aglow with the luminance of the red hot stones, the ceremony begins in the lodge. The sweat leader sounds the Water Drum and calls forth the spirit guides in prayer from the Four Directions. The sweat leader then dips water and pours it onto the hot stones in the pit, producing large amounts of steam, usually one dipper for each of the four directions, or until he is told by the spirits to stop. Then he begins his prayers, songs and chants.

    A typical prayer might be:

    Grandfather, Mysterious One,
    We search for you along this
    Great Red Road you have set us on.Sky Father, Tunkashila,
    We thank you for this world.
    We thank you for our own existence.
    We ask only for your blessing and for your instruction.

    Grandfather, Sacred One,
    Put our feet on the holy path that leads to you,
    and give us the strength and the will
    to lead ourselves and our children
    past the darkness we have entered.
    Teach us to heal ourselves,
    to heal each other and to heal the world.

    Let us begin this very day,
    this very hour,
    the Great Healing to come.
    Let us walk the Red Road in Peace.

    During the purification of one’s spirit inside a sweat lodge, all sense of race, color and religion is set aside. As in the Mother’s womb and the Father’s eyes, we are all the same, we are One. Each of us has the ability to sit with the Creator himself. Healing begins here for dis-ease, physical, emotional, directional and spiritual.

    As the steam and temperature rises so do our senses. Messages and vision from the Spirit World are received through the group consciousness of the participants. One at a time, as a talking stick is passed, all the people inside get an opportunity to speak, to pray and to ask for guidance and forgiveness from the Creator and the people they have hurt. As they go around the circle, they tell who they are, where they are from, and what is their clan, so the Creator, the Spirit People, and all there can acknowledge them.

    A sweat is typically four sessions, called rounds or endurances, each lasting about 30 to 45 minutes. The round ends when the leader announces the opening of the door.

    The first round is for recognition of the spirit world which resides in the black West where the sun goes down, and the Creator may be asked for a “spirit guide” by some of the participants.

    The second round is for recognition of courage, endurance, strength, cleanliness, and honesty, calling upon the power of the white North.

    The recognition of knowledge and individual prayer symbolize the third round, praying to the direction of the daybreak star and the rising sun that we may gain wisdom, that we may follow the Red Road of the East in all our endeavors.

    The yellow South stands for growth and healing. Thus, the last round centers on spiritual growth and healing. From our spirit guides from the west, from the courage, honesty and endurance of the north, from the knowledge and wisdom obtained from the east, we continue the circle to the south from which comes growth. It is from growth and maturing that healing comes.

    At the completion of each round, the participants may emerge, if desired, to plunge into an adjacent pool or stream if one is available, or roll in the snow if the sweat is held in winter. In arid areas the participants roll in the sand to cool off and remove the sweat. Many participants maintain their places in the lodge until completion of the fourth round, while the cooled stones in the pit are removed and replaced with hot stones.

    There are many different forms of sweat ceremonies in Indian country. Each people has their own tradition and this is especially clear when it comes to the sweat lodge ceremony. Many differences, depending on the people participating, occur during each ritual. For instance, many times rounds are held in complete silence and meditation as the participants feel the need. At other less intense times, a round may be devoted to story telling and recounting of the clan’s creation stories. This is all part of spiritual and emotional healing and growth. Respect, sincerity, humility, the ability to listen and slow down are all key in the way you approach ceremony.

    Who Sweats and Why?

    The sweat lodge ceremony usually occurs before and after other major rituals like the “Vision Quest” for example. The aim of the ceremony is to purify one’s mind, body, spirit and heart. It is also a “stand alone” ritual that it occurs whenever it is needed. Sweat lodge essentially translates into returning to the womb and the innocence of childhood. The lodge is dark, moist, hot and safe. The darkness relates to human ignorance before the spiritual world and so much of the physical world.

    Traditionally it was only the men who would sweat. As time has passed and the lodge has evolved, other levels have been shown. The sweat lodge has given many gifts and shown itself as a way to not only cleanse, but to release anger, guilt and shame in a safe way, and to bring people together as ONE. These days women sweat also, provided they are not on their moon time or cleansing time already. Men can sweat separately and women can sweat separately, or there can be mixed sweats where men and women both participate. The Elder or Lodge Keeper running the ceremony according to their teachings will determine this.

    Observing very strict protocols while in ceremony are key. Men and women must both practice modesty in their dress when they come to ceremony. Sweat lodge is not a fashion show, nor is it a place for vanity or to get a date. This is a sacred place to pray, meditate, learn and heal, and that must be the focus.

    Unlike “New Age” sweats we do not go in naked when men and women are present. It has nothing to do with being uncomfortable with our bodies, as some would have us believe. Rather it is about not confusing spirituality with sexuality, and creating a safe place where all people feel comfortable. Men, women, boys and girls can all benefit from the lodges. Modesty is to be practiced in our dress, meaning that men wear shorts and bring a couple of towels to cover themselves and the women wear modest dress or long skirt with a loose T-shirt and a couple of towels.

    We must always walk the Red Road in a way that honors others’ views and teachings without sacrificing our own. All of these ways are good, none is better or worse than the other.

    We need to unite all of the races and both of the sexes if we are going to be strong and the Sacred Hoop is to be mended. Every form of spirituality goes through change. This evolution reflects the changing needs of the community and of our environment. Anything that will not change risks isolating itself from the people. Water is life and changes everything, even the hardest stone. The change that is needed is turning towards each other instead of away from one another. If we ceremony together, we heal together, we laugh together, live and love together.

    If you are invited to a sweat, the 24 hours previous to the sweat should be spent in cleansing, fasting, prayer and meditation on the intended purpose of the sweat, and you should be free from drugs and alcohol. For the greatest spiritual benefit, these conditions should be met.

    If you would like to know more of what happens in a sweat lodge ceremony the answer is quite simple:
    Attend one. It will be different than the last one you attended.

    And so it is . . .
    Hokh! Mitakuye o’yasin. Hecetu welo !! . . . All my relatives, it is indeed so..!!

    This article was originally featured at Barefoot’s World.

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